By Elizabeth Halsted, Ph.D.
When it comes to teenage boys and sex, just say no just won’t work. The reality of hormonal, psychological, and socio-cultural pressures combined with still immature judgement means boys need all the help they can get when making sexual choices. They need to be helped to think, and they need help seeing that sex always involves another person with whom they would be in a relationship of some kind. More so than sex-positive messages, boys need relationship-positive messages. Happily, it appears some help is on the way; a pair of recent news reports suggest mutually satisfying consensual sex may be starting to take root in our boys’ sexual decision making at a level commensurate with the role played by religious/moral beliefs and harm reduction.
According to a recent NY Times article about a CDC report on teenage sexual behavior from 2006 to 2010, fewer teenagers were having sex, more were using contraception, and fewer were getting pregnant than ever before.
But what really got my attention was what abstinent teenagers said when explaining why they weren’t having sex. As usual, the most common answer was that doing so was against their religion and morals. Religious/moral reasons has been the most common response in previous surveys as well. But the second most common response has changed for boys since 2002, the last time such a survey was done. Boys reporting that fear of getting someone pregnant contributed to them avoiding sex was previously the second most prevalent explanation. In this recent survey the second most common response was that they hadn’t found the right person to have sex with. That is very interesting.
The lead author of the survey Dr Gladys Rodriguez underlines the obvious when she was quoted saying, “How boys feel about these topics is going to influence how they behave.” While we in general take for granted that feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and fears provide a framework within which behavioral choices are made, it is still heartening to see a growing role acknowledged for boys’ inner lives regulating their sexual behavior. If the value of the person with whom a boy decides to have sex rises, it is good for all involved.
A similar relationship-positive message is found in the New York Times Magazine cover story, “Teaching Good Sex: A frank, fearless approach to the birds and the bees. The author, Laurie Abraham, tells the story of Al Vernacchio, a sex educator in a private school in Philadelphia. His class, designed for High School seniors, helps teens think about sex, and the sexual choices they need to make.
For example, remember defining what you got to do on “first base” or “second base?" Remember Meatloaf's song Paradise by the Dashboard Light in which a sexual home-run leads a pair of teens into a pregnancy-forced marriage so that now he’s “praying for the end of time, so I can end my time with you.” Well, Vernacchio raises questions about how the still ubiquitous baseball metaphor for various sex acts sets up the participants as opponents in competition, rather than as partners making a shared decision for their mutual pleasure. He also, as another example, talks about pornography, how porn typically tells the story of one-person centered (the male!) sex where excitement is instantaneous and cooperation assumed.
To counter these images and support thoughtful rather than thoughtless competition or assumed selfishness, he teaches about the body and about gender differences in sexual pleasure. Because such knowledge will change how his students think about sex, it is expected they will change how they frame their decisions about their sexual behavior in the direction of valuing consensual mutually satisfying sex.
The article goes on to say how rare and controversial such a sex positive message is in the field of sex education. Sex educators typically focus on the religious/moral abstinence message that sex outside of the marital relationship is wrong. Or alternatively they give the disaster-prevention message emphasizing the risk of pregnancy and disease. These two messages are seen in previous CDC reports of abstaining teens where moral/religious reasons were the number one restraint on sexual behavior and fear of pregnancy was second. The new response in the latest survey, that they haven’t found the right person, suggests that Al Vernacchio’s ideas about mutuality might already have a foothold in the larger population.
I’m heartened by the thought that culture might finally include ideas about mutually satisfying consensual sex along with religious/moral beliefs and harm reduction. Our boys need all the help they can get to make good decisions. Sex-positive teaching should include specific ideas about “the right person” and the powerfully thought-provoking message that the relationship in which teenage sex happens is important in decisions about sexual behavior. I especially hope these ideas might be thought of as “relationship-positive” rather than the rhetorically riskier and less accurate phrase “sex-positive.” And anytime teens, or anyone, can be helped to think about being relationship-positive it is all to the good.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Halsted, Ph.D. is a Supervisor of Psychotherapy and Teaching Faculty at the Eating Disorders, Compulsions, and Addictions program of the William Alanson White Institute. Author of "A shoe is rarely just a shoe: women's accessories and their psyches" in Longing, Psychoanalytic Musings on Desire. Jean Petrucelli, Editor). She maintains a private practice in NYC and consults to The Rudolph Steiner School where she contributes to middle school sex education.
© 2011 Elizabeth Halsted, All Rights Reserved